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The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border

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For Francisco Cantú, the border is in the blood: his mother, a park ranger and daughter of a Mexican immigrant, raised him in the scrublands of the Southwest. Haunted by the landscape of his youth, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners are posted to remote regions crisscrossed by drug routes and smuggling corridors, where they learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive.

Cantú tries not to think where the stories go from there. Plagued by nightmares, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. But when an immigrant friend travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and does not return, Cantú discovers that the border has migrated with him, and now he must know the whole story. Searing and unforgettable, The Line Becomes a River makes urgent and personal the violence our border wreaks on both sides of the line.

250 pages, Hardcover

First published February 6, 2018

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About the author

Francisco Cantú

10 books172 followers
Francisco Cantú served as an agent for the United States Border Patrol in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas from 2008 to 2012. A former Fulbright fellow, he is the recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award. His essays and translations have been featured on This American Life and in Best American Essays, Harper’s, Guernica, Orion, n+1 and Ploughshares. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

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Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,295 reviews120k followers
February 10, 2022
“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the president sent over what amounts to be two and a half times that number, to 1.8 million,” Kelly said. “The difference between (690,000) and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up.”
Immigration experts cite various reasons why people eligible for DACA’s protections do not apply. These include lack of knowledge about the program, a worry that participating will expose them to deportation and an inability to afford registration fees.
“I’m sorry for that characterization. It doesn’t surprise me from Gen. Kelly,” No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, his party’s chief immigration negotiator, said of the White House staff chief’s remarks.
- Washington Post – February 6, 20128 – by Alan Fram | AP
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to be able to talk about the challenges of immigration without the sort of ignorance and bigotry that is often brought to the discussion? A debate that considers cost and benefits, not just in economic, and political, but in human terms would be a significant step forward. Francisco Cantú, an Arizona native, was a college graduate with an interest in international relations, particularly border issues. He imagined a future in law or the foreign service, but thought he might be best prepared if he had first-hand experience of the border for himself. So he joined the largest police force in the country, the United States Border Patrol (BP). Although it is a police force, the BP re-imagined the agents’ uniforms in a more military style in 2007, the better to reflect what was increasingly seen as a military mission. The outdoors element of the job held particular appeal as his mom had been a National Parks ranger for many years, giving him a taste for nature, particularly the desert.

Francisco Cantú – image from Mother Jones – by Beowulf Sheehan

Although The Line Becomes a River is divided into three parts, two of the parts live on one side of a line and the final part lives, and struggles, on another. Cantú writes of his training and early experiences in the BP, where he served as a Border Patrol Agent (BPA) for four years. Much of the work was watching and waiting, responding to tripped sensors, trying to track down those who had crossed, sometimes helping the exhausted, dehydrated, and/or injured, and sometimes finding the remains of failed crossers. Many perish in the attempt. (Don’t even think of trying to cross in the summer.) You learn about methods used by the BP to discourage migrants, and the resulting conflicts one might have about employing methods that could be life-threatening.

You will get some analysis on how the increase in US crackdowns at the border has pushed the crossing economy into the hands of drug cartels. You will also learn some of the nuances of what various maimings by cartel operatives are intended to signal, pick up some information on how much of the US side of the border is used and sometimes controlled by coyotes and their employers, feel the eyes on your back as Cantú tells about the impressive cartel intelligence network in place, on both sides of the border, to manage the crossings, and see how migrants are often held for ransom by coyotes, with payments demanded of terrified relations, sometimes even when the extortionists did not have the crosser.

Image from Wired Magazine

The third part of the book begins after Cantú has left the BP. A couple of years in, working as a barista in a local shopping center, he is friends with Jose Martinez, a fellow who does much of the cleaning there, and who shares breakfast with Cantú most days. Martinez is the most reliable, and the best worker in the place, according to the owner. Lovely wife, three kids, church-goer, attentive father, pillar-of-the-community sort. When he learns that his mother is in her last days he returns home to see her off. Problem is, mom is doing her crossing over from the more southerly territory of the great state of Mexico. And, despite his many years in the USA, despite his work ethic, despite his enviable character, Jose was, and is, an illegal immigrant, and now has to deal with cartel-organized coyotes to find his way back home, and the US border machinery once he crosses. The trials of this effort, the support Jose receives from the community, the assistance Cantú offers Jose and his family, the details of what happens when an illegal is caught, all combine to make this a very personal, educational, and moving story.

Banner from FC’s site

Cantú adds in dashes of regional history pertaining to the establishment and marking of the border, and offers occasional writing about the often frightening beauty of the land.

This is not a political screed. Cantú is attempting to look past the rhetoric to the on-the-ground details of the crossing problem. There is a cost to the BPAs, as well as to those they apprehend. Cantú’s mother worries that his soul will become deformed by containment within a government structure, that his idealism will be used by the Border Patrol in ways he might not care for. The cost to the crossers and their families is considerable, immediate, and often lifelong.

A view of the U.S.-Mexico border fence on the outskirts of Nogales, Mexico – image from the NPR interview

Cantú intersperses his narrative with recollection of dreams he began having while in the Border Patrol. It may feel like a workshopped lit device, at first, until one learns the basis.
The first sign that the job was taking a toll for me came in the form of those nightmares, of which I tried to describe a few in the book. For years I would just ignore them. Like in any enforcement or military job, part of the training is designed to normalize these intense traumatic, and often violent, experiences that you’re expected to have. In my waking life, I totally did that. I normalized the things I saw, never thought about it. I think the dreams rose up from that pushing-aside/normalizing not-normal happenings. When I started to realize that, and the reason I write about them, is that there was a recurring dream I was always having. I was wearing my teeth out, grinding the enamel off my molars. That was the first time my dream world manifested in my waking life. That was the point at which I had to pay more attention to my dreams. They were shaking me. - from the Mother Jones interview
A Border Patrol vehicle drives in front of a mural in Tecate, Mexico, just beyond a border structure in Tecate, Calif. – image from Nieman Storyboard - by Gregory Bull/Associated Press

There are many moving moments in this book. Cantú talked with NPR’s Steve Inskeep about one woman who had been caught crossing.
I remember sort of bandaging her feet and cleaning her wounds, which is this very, you know, direct, tangible way of helping someone. I think it's almost biblical, in a sense, to clean someone's feet. And I remember her looking down at me just kind of, like, very tenderly and thanking me. And I felt like, "Don't thank me. At the end of the day, I'm taking you back to a cell and I'm sending you on your way to be sent back to this place that you're literally risking your life to flee." And so, yes, it's true that the Border Patrol does good work and rescues people and saves lives, but there's tension there.
There is no legislative agenda here. Francisco Cantú does not offer specific solutions to the real questions of how to regulate immigration. It is certainly clear that he is sympathetic to many he encountered, both while wearing a badge, and while pulling shots. But his sympathies, and empathies are shared with all sides. He knows what it is to be a BPA, and is sensitive to the challenges of the job, and to the toll it can take. He is aware of the physical perils police face, having to contend with cartel-based operations, and the emotional cost of constantly having to cope with desperate people. The Line Becomes a River offers a very human face to what is often a very inhuman conversation. Will it change anyone’s mind? I doubt that many who are opposed to immigration will bother reading it. The ideological barrier around fixed perspectives can be far more unbreachable than any physical wall. But for those seeking a human response to a humanitarian crisis, this would be a good place to gain a bit of perspective.

image from KPBS.org
I'll never forget as a Border Patrol agent bringing this guy into my station, part of a group that I apprehended, and I was rolling his fingerprints and putting him into, you know, the database to be shipped back to Mexico. And I remember him just kind of like looking around while I was asking him these formulaic questions. And he's like, "Hey, I know there's a couple hours before the bus comes, is there anything that I can do? Can I take out the trash? Can I clean the cells? I want to show you that I'm here to work."
It changed things for me to have someone in front of me and say that to me. And so those are the kind of things that I carry with me. I think there's nothing as powerful as an individual story, and I think we need to listen to the people who have those stories right now.
- from NPR interview

Review first posted – February 9, 2018

Publication date – February 6, 2018

==========In the summer of 2019 GR reduced the allowable review size by 25%, from 20,000 to 15,000 characters. In order to accommodate the text beyond that I have moved it to comment #1 below.

Profile Image for Maureen .
1,379 reviews7,089 followers
December 22, 2020
*3.5 STARS*

Francisco Cantú grew up on the US/Mexican border where his mother, (a second generation Mexican - American) was a park ranger. Francisco loved the landscape - the national parks and desert landscapes, and living in close proximity to the border ignited a curiosity in him to learn more about border control. He decided to pursue a degree in border relations, and although his studies provided some insight into the problems, he needed to see how things worked in the real world, and became a field agent with Border Control.

This is Cantú's personal account of what really happens, from both the perspective of the agents and also the immigrants themselves. Regardless of one's opinions on the subject of immigration, it's clear that there's no right or wrong - no black or white - these are human beings, each with their own story, their own hopes, dreams, and fears. Cantú shows great compassion for the people he encounters, but essentially the system appears flawed, and there's little he can do on a personal level, he's simply there to enforce immigration laws.

I found the first part of the book to be quite disjointed, and there were lots of facts and figures to absorb - ( and although I realise these were important ) I found it heavy going at times. There were some distressing scenes regarding drugs cartels and those dealing in human trafficking - they were heartbreaking to read, but it would have been wrong to omit these, because these are the facts laid bare, and there's no way of skirting round them.

This is an informed and honest look at something that everyone has an opinion on. Cantú uses a blank canvas to paint us a picture, but it's a picture you wouldn't want to stand and admire. I doubt you'll find a more crucial read regarding immigration and border control than this one.

*Thank you to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing for my ARC in exchange for an honest review*
Profile Image for Dianne.
559 reviews906 followers
February 26, 2022
I really enjoyed this book and don’t understand at all the venom being directed at the author, a former U.S. Border Patrol Agent. Looking at some of the reviews of this book, it’s pretty clear the most vitriolic reviewers never read the book at all or read only a portion of it. I think Cantu presents a pretty balanced and fair view of U.S. and Mexico border issues and the impact policy has on lives on both sides of the border.

Cantu earned a degree in International Relations and learned a lot about the border through policy and history, which he shares throughout the course of the book. He decided he wanted to be on the ground and in the field to see the realities of what he had been studying, so he took a job in 2008 as a Border Patrol Agent in Arizona. The first section of the book covers his early days in the field, reacting to sensors in the desert triggered by activity in the trails and mountains around the border. Cantu paints a painful picture – a mix of desperate people trying to cross the border to join family in the U.S. and/or trying to escape drug cartel violence or economic chaos as well as ruthless and crafty criminals trying to get their drug loads into the U.S. Cantu doesn’t sugar coat the border patrol side of it – there are cowboys, rednecks and racists in the border patrol but there are also compassionate and upstanding agents who are trying to do their job in the most humane way they can. It’s a tough job with a high turnover rate. The agents find people lost and abandoned in the deserts by their coyotes (human smugglers), on the verge of death. There are dead bodies to be dealt with. There are people captured trying to cross the border who have to be gathered up and processed for deportation.

The stress of the field job leads to the second section of the book, where Cantu accepts a job in section headquarters in Tucson where he does intelligence work and reporting, and removes himself from the field. He tracks drug violence and activity in Mexico because cartel activity plays a big part in border issues. Many migrants who survive their border journey and get into the U.S. get shepherded into drop houses in the suburbs, where they are held and beaten until they provide their captors with the phone numbers of relatives in the U.S. The relatives are then contacted and a ransom is demanded. As border crossings have become more difficult, Cantu reveals the law of unintended consequences - traffickers increase smuggling fees, the “business” of human smuggling becomes more profitable, consolidates under drug cartels, and the migrants become a commodity.

Cantu once more returns to field work; this time in El Paso as part of a task force across the border from Juarez, one of the most violent and cruel places on earth. Cantu’s intelligence work has filled his mind with violence. He traces Juarez’s history as a peaceful vacation destination, when crossing the border across the Rio Grande was no big deal, to the 1990’s as femicide central where women are raped, tortured and murdered at stag parties and orgies and then dumped like garbage, to 2008, where it is now the city where EVERYONE dies. It all becomes too much for Cantu and he leaves the Border Patrol entirely after four years.

In last section of the book, Cantu is working at a coffee bar in a Mercado in Arizona. He befriends the maintenance worker, Jose, who comes from Oaxaca in Mexico. Jose returns to Mexico to see his dying mother and finds he is unable to cross back into the U.S. Crossing the border as an illegal alien is very different from his first entry into the U.S. Cantu describes the efforts to keep Jose from being deported, and when unsuccessful, Jose’s subsequent efforts to rejoin his family in Arizona. Does he pay money to a coyote to smuggle him across? Does he become a mule for the cartel to get across? Neither are good options for a good and decent man who just wants to rejoin his loved ones.

The last chapter is Jose’s, which is both poignant and illuminating. Here’s the crux of it- the U.S. border policy is based upon the belief that if the father or mother is deported, the family will follow. Jose maintains that the mothers and fathers with the best family values WANT their family to remain in the U.S., where they are safe and have the best chance for a better life. It’s a broken system – I think we all know that – and one with no easy fixes. I thought Cantu did an excellent job of presenting both sides, and the very real human toll of policy.

The reading experience is a little clumsy as Cantu intersperses history, policy and his own story but it worked for me. As with most good books, this one will stay with me. I feel a little bit changed and clearer-eyed for having read this. Whatever your grievances may be with the Border Patrol or U.S. immigration policy, give this book a chance before trashing it. And for God’s sake, don’t write a review until you have read the book in its entirety!!
Profile Image for Nat K.
415 reviews155 followers
June 30, 2022
"I dream in the night that I am grinding my teeth out, spitting the crumbled pieces into my palms and holding them in my cupped hands, searching for someone to show them to, someone who can see what is happening."

This book is INTENSE.

I cannot imagine being a border patrol officer anywhere, let alone an area with so much historical significance and fraught with as much difficulty as the U.S/Mexico border.

I think it would be soul destroying. I believe that most people become officers with the best intentions, that they feel they have something to offer, to possibly change the system, and make a difference to people's lives with how illegal immigrants are treated and processed. This is the impression I have of Francisco Cantú, the writer of this book.

This is such a brutal, honest and tough read. But I couldn't leave it once I'd started. I felt a deep sense of hollowness and sadness reading Francisco Cantú's account of his time as a U.S Border Patrol Officer. This is written in a haunting manner, as if you are his shadow, and are viewing events through his eyes. The things he has seen cannot be unseen, and remain imprinted on his memory, and in turn yours.

Not only are there people crossing the border to seek a better life, but also the people smugglers and drug cartels. Both the hopeful and very ugly side of human nature are displayed. The human cost is immense.

"I dream that I am not dreaming, that I am truly clenching my teeth until they shatter in my mouth. I am desperate to stop myself, desperate for help. This is real, I think to myself. The other dreams were different - this one is real."

I shared the bewilderment of Francisco as he grew increasingly disillusioned in his role as a frontline officer. His inability to sleep, and the disturbing dreams that interrupt his rest.

I don't know what the answer is. This is a tough topic and a harsh reality, handled with humanity.

An absolute must read.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,412 followers
March 12, 2018
This book seems too small for all it accomplishes. The quiet watchfulness and introspection of the Prologue tamps down opinion before it develops. We are here to listen, to understand. It is such a quiet read, immediately alert to the tension inherent in a grandson of immigrants policing the border.

This is a beautiful book, a beautiful physical object. Riverhead Books formatted the inside to be a kind of art, using gray pages to separate the sections and lines to guide our eye, delineate our thoughts. We recognize we are privileged to see what an American thinks of the border, an American with reason to care about the migrants, who shares our history and theirs.

The real terror that migrants bring or flee is not hidden; it is one of the first things the border guards encounter. A drug capture is a feather in one’s cap. The people ferrying the drugs are not as important; they are allowed to struggle back to where they came from, or continue onward if they dare. Not much thought is expended in their direction.

Before long, Cantú becomes aware of his own muted, muffled response to the hideousness of the choices facing his human captures. The job itself appears to be a reason why he cannot envision himself in their place. Then we discover Cantú’s stress is coming out by a grinding of his teeth when at rest. He dreams of captures—his response and theirs—and how it could be different.

He moves to a different job, a different state. He watches, in a computer lab, movements in the border area. He researches reasons for population movement, drug dealing, gang murders, a capture’s history. This knowledge does not abate his nighttime fears. He starts to try to imagine the humanity behind the statistics, quoting the historian Timothy Snyder, “Each record of death suggests, but cannot supply, a unique life….it is for humanists to turn these [deaths] back into people.”

He goes back to El Paso and the Rio Grande and finds himself more confused than ever. “…studying…and reading…international affairs…I had the idea that…the patrol…would somehow unlock the border for me…but…I have more questions than ever before.” Exposure to the violence of the border region gave him a kind of moral injury: “Moral injury is a learned behavior, learning to accept the things you know are wrong.”

In contemplating the migration of individuals from Mexico and Central America to North America, Cantú must examine the horror facing those migrants in their own countries. He gives us a taste of it, leading us to question our own understanding of government, laws, fairness, money, profit, coercion, protection. We realize we do not know the answers to the questions these migrants raise: How are we to live? What do we have to lose?

Cantú leaves the border patrol to think, write, read, study. In trying to make sense of his own history, his recent past, and his future, he takes a job in which he meets a man who becomes his friend. That man, it turns out, is what Americans call an illegal, though he has lived and worked more than thirty years in the United States. All the understanding Cantú learned at the border is put into practice now as he couples his sensitivity and sensibility with experience.

This gorgeous, thoughtful read is replete with references to poets and novelists, as well as to those who write history, philosophy, international affairs. Cantú took time and had the resources to assimilate his feelings about illegal border crossing—the indignity, the futility of it—and he is eloquent in his expression of it.

What I came away with, putting financially-motivated drug traffic aside, was that the movement of individuals is migration, something that is not going to stop because we disapprove. When things get bad enough, people move. Cantú’s title alludes to the water-like quality of the stream, and the possibilities for growth.

Flood. We, and the people of other great nations, should think about restructuring our attitudes to accept the reality of a world in crisis and how that affects us whether we want it to or not. We must look at ourselves and the world, ourselves in the world, to see what we need to do to keep ourselves from moral injury.

Profile Image for Montzalee Wittmann.
4,558 reviews2,312 followers
March 2, 2018
The Line Becomes A River (Hardcover) by Francisco Cantú is a very emotional book. I was angry, depressed, sad, but I don't think I was happy once in the book. The guy of the story, his mother was a ranger and he grew up loving the outdoors and near the border. He has Mexican heritage. Interested in the politics of the border, he takes classes in college and gets a degree but still he wants to be up close and know more. He becomes a border guard and describes the training and what it was like. He also talks about the job. He doesn't stay with it and moves to something else. It gets very personal when he befriends someone. For three years he talks with person daily and doesn't know he is illegal until that guy goes south to see his dying mother and gets caught coming back. The guy had been in the country over 30 years and has kids and a wife here. Now what? Very emotional roller coaster ride all the way through the book. Got this from the library.
Profile Image for HBalikov.
1,733 reviews648 followers
July 20, 2020
This memoir by Francisco Cantú covers his time in the U.S. Border Patrol and his thoughts, dreams and associations to that work. It brings in family, friends, co-workers and considerations of how he approached his work. I wondered for a long time whether he would change the job or whether the job would change him. Now I know.

Cantú’s Mexican heritage has a significant impact on his work as an agent for the United States Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012, working in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. As he becomes more informed about his ancestors, it affects his work. As he becomes more informed about all the mechanisms of border security and immigration control, it eventually stresses his ability to do his job.

The book moves steadily through his thoughts, interactions and dreams. There is a nice mix of the practical and the mystical. We get an increasing sense of who this man is and what he wants.

One of the great strengths of the book is also one of its great challenges. Cantú provides many facts and includes material on the history of the border and the daily activities of the Border Patrol and (among other things) the nature of the process for illegal immigrants who are caught and the incarceration system run by private enterprise. You have to assimilate all of this; you have to decide what was really meant in a conversation; you have to decide who is believable; and, you have to (eventually) evaluate what you have learned from Cantú’s book.

My recently acquired edition has an important epilogue. So I want to delete the paragraph in brackets and quote from that epilogue.

"If our understanding of violence and death along the border can become something visceral, then we may begin to feel, deep within ourselves, no matter how far we live from the border, that what happens there is profoundly unnatural. “‘Naturalizing’ the conditions of a particular territory,” Valencia warns, “leads to mystification and leaves us in an acritical and resigned position, negating the possibility that our actions might re-shape that supposedly essential ‘nature’ of the place.” By collapsing the distance that separates us from the border, we might push back against the idea of its inherent violence, against the unceasing negation of its culture and people, against its continual transformation into a hellscape designed to repel migrants."

{I was a bit disappointed that the book ends where it does. Cantú takes us on his journey from his formal education (and educational degrees) through his practical education (with the Border Patrol) to his experiential period as a citizen living close to the border. As the last portion of the book concentrates on his experiences with the actual struggles engendered by the USA’s border policies and practices, it is a significant point of view. But I would like him to voice more explicitly how he would address the ills caused by our attitudes and actions. I guess I was hoping for a way to tie-up the many loose ends while realizing that this current border situation can’t be resolved so easily}
Profile Image for Maureen .
1,379 reviews7,089 followers
December 15, 2022
*3.5 STARS*

Francisco Cantú grew up on the American / Mexican border where his mother, ( a second generation Mexican - American ) was a park ranger. Francisco loved the landscape - the national parks and desert landscapes, and living in close proximity to the border ignited a curiosity in him to learn more about border control. He decided to pursue a degree in border relations, and although his studies provided some insight into the problems, he needed to see how things worked in the real world, and became a field agent with Border Control.

This is Cantú's personal account of what really happens, from both the perspective of the agents and also the immigrants themselves. Regardless of one's opinions on the subject of immigration, it's clear that there's no right or wrong - no black or white - these are human beings, each with their own story, their own hopes, dreams, and fears. Cantú shows great compassion for the people he encounters, but essentially the system appears flawed, and there's little he can do on a personal level, he's simply there to enforce immigration laws.

I found the first part of the book to be quite disjointed, and there were lots of facts and figures to absorb - ( and although I realise these were important ) I found it heavy going at times. There were some distressing scenes regarding drugs cartels and those dealing in human trafficking - they were heartbreaking to read, but it would have been wrong to omit these, because these are the facts laid bare, and there's no way of skirting round them.

This is an informed and honest look at something that everyone has an opinion on. Cantú uses a blank canvas to paint us a picture, but it's a picture you wouldn't want to stand and admire. I doubt you'll find a more crucial read regarding immigration and border control than this one.
Profile Image for Canadian Reader.
1,064 reviews24 followers
April 4, 2018
Slim and beautifully written, The Line Becomes a River is a powerful, deeply humane piece of nonfiction about the lives of Border Patrol agents and desperate migrants on the frontier between the U.S. and Mexico. This is a hybrid work: part memoir, part meditation, part expository piece. Richly allusive, it refers to the works of many writers on immigration, history, politics, and psychology. Aspects of Mexico’s geography—its flora and fauna, its culture and history, its wars of independence and revolution, as well as its ongoing catastrophic drug wars—in which thousands of innocents have been murdered and innumerable crimes against humanity have been committed—are all touched upon. Other topics are addressed, including the cartels (whose stranglehold on human smuggling only grew as the U.S. government cracked down on the border and hardened the policy related to it), mass graves (well over a hundred throughout Mexico, a number of them along the border), and femicide. No, this is not cheerful stuff.

The first half of the book focuses on Cantú‘s 2008-2012 training, field, and intelligence work for the U.S. Border Patrol—mostly in Arizona. His decision to join this agency greatly concerns his mother, the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant, a former National Park ranger, someone who proclaims herself to be “not an enforcement-minded person.” As she sees it, the Border Patrol is “a paramilitary police force.” “You must understand,” she tells her son, “you are stepping into a system, an institution with little regard for people.” However, Cantú has determined that he will gain real-world experience with the border he’s spent the last few years studying in his international relations program in Washington, D.C.. A number of the men he meets during his training grew up on the border, are bilingual, and have even attended college; they’ve joined because the agency represents an opportunity for service, stability, and financial security.

The lessons, the rules, come swift and hard. “Your body is a tool,” says a trainer; batons, tasers, and guns mean nothing compared to the body, and a person must not give in when it tires. You must learn to read the dirt: when you “cut the sign”—i.e., follow a migrant trail—you must keep the sun in front of you, never at your back, so that the sign catches the light. Don’t track drug smugglers: you’re only asking for “a hell of a lot of paperwork” and a double shift to write it all up. When you discover “lay-up spots”—where rations and water are stashed—piss on, crush, or burn the stuff to encourage migrants to quit and return. Be sure to carry Vicks VapoRub; you’ll need it when you come upon the dead bodies.

It isn’t long before Cantú feels the effects of his work. “I have nightmares, visions of them [migrants] staggering through the desert . . . men lost and wandering without food or water, dying slowly as they look for some road, some village, some way out.” The nightmares intensify: a wolf is a recurrent character, and sometimes Cantú’s teeth break in these dreams. A dentist he visits during this period supplies the reason: Cantú is wearing down his tooth enamel with nighttime grinding. When his uncle asks about his job, Cantú wants to tell the older man that he can hardly sleep: his mind is “so filled with violence” that he can no longer perceive the beauty of a landscape he was once so sensitive to. There is a term for what has happened to him: moral injury—“a more subtle wound [than PTSD], characterized not by flashbacks or a startle complex, but by ‘sorrow, remorse, grief, shame, bitterness, and moral confusion.’” It is learned behaviour: “learning to accept things you know are wrong.” Cantú tells his supervisor, Hayward—who greatly values him, that he needs to leave. What he cannot tell Hayward is that “it’s not the work for me.”

The second part of The Line Becomes a River concerns itself with Cantu’s life after the Border Patrol, when he is working as a barista and becomes friends with Jose Martinez, a hardworking undocumented Mexican employed as the mercado’s custodian. Every morning at 10 am, Jose sits down to share a burrito with Cantu, who prepares him coffee with vanilla in return. A father of three sons, all born in America (one mentally disabled; one slightly lame after being hit by a car), Jose has a wife who is is also an illegal. When the dedicated Jose doesn’t show up for work one morning, Diane—the owner of the mercado—informs Cantú that her best worker has returned to Mexico to see his dying mother. Two weeks later, in late 2015, he is caught trying to illegally cross back into the U.S. (where he has lived for 30 years, since the age of 11) and is scheduled for deportation. Cantú attempts to aid the Martinez family as a sort of interpreter and shepherd through a justice system that he himself knows little about. Because Lupe Martinez is also illegal, it is Cantu who accompanies the Martinez sons to the prison facility where their father is being held. Through these experiences, the author sees what happens to illegals on the other side of arrests of the kind he carried out as a Border Patrol agent.

I have watched my fair share of TV news stories on the plight of Mexican and Central American migrants, and I have read some children’s literature that portrays their experience. However, it is Cantú’s understated book that has brought the issues home for me. The Line Becomes a River is a powerful, exceptional work about an ongoing tragedy. I hope we will be hearing more from Cantú.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,002 reviews35.9k followers
February 26, 2022
The stories we learn are passionate—excruciating, and intense.
This is Francisco’s memoir as a patrol officer at the United States/Mexican border.
Written with dignity, compassion, and humanity….
even some adventure descriptions about hiking and fishing —
but most, we get a heavy dose experience about the realities of Mexicans attempting to cross the border— and all the risks that are at stake.

It’s an emotional roller coaster compelling memoir….
The writing is beautifully moving!

Canto wrote…..
“One of my principal goals in ‘The Line Becomes a River’ was to create a space for readers to inhibit an emergent
sense of horror at the suffering that takes place every day at the border. In narrating my own gradual participation in the various degrees of violence inflicted in the fulfillment of our nations immigration policies and enforcement practices, I sought to leave room for readers to construct their own moral interpretation of the events described”.

With no easy answers in how to solve the border problems…..
this book becomes an achingly remarkable memoir that challenges us to look at all sides of the issues at hand.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,510 reviews2,441 followers
September 24, 2019
Winner of the Whiting Award for Nonfiction 2017
"When I was in school, I spent all this time studying international relations, immigration, border security. I was always reading about policy and economics, looking at all these complex academic ways of addressing this big unsolvable problem. When I made the decision to apply for this job, I had the idea that I'd see things in the patrol that would somehow unlock the border for me, you know? I thought I'd come up with all sorts of answers. And then working here, you see so much, you have all these experiences. But I don't know how to put it into context, I don't know where I fit in it all. I've got more questions than ever before."

This quote from the book is part of a conversation Francisco Cantú, the author of this memoir, had with one of his fellow Border Patrol agents. After graduating with a B.A. in International Relations, Cantú decided to experience the realities of law enforcement at the Mexico-United States border for himself - much to the dismay of his concerned mother, a former Arizona park ranger: "You grew up near the border, living with me in the deserts and national parks. The border is in our blood for Christ's sake - your great-grandparents brought my father across the border from Mexico when he was just a little boy."

As a grandson of immigrants, Cantú was now directly confronted with the plight of migrants seeking a better life, many of them dying during their dangerous passage through the desert, the cartels, trafficking drugs and people, the local inhabitants and farmers who are fearing both cartel violence and raids by hungry and desperate migrants, and the psychological toll the dangerous work of patrolling the "unnatural divide" takes on his colleagues and him. Faced with a multitude of dangerous and bloody stories, the "big unsolvable problem" of the border starts to weigh Cantú down. Instead of making peace with the wolf, as his patron saint Francis of Assisi (after whom his mother named him) did, a wolf starts to haunt Cantú's dreams: "I dreamed of a cave littered with body parts, a landscape devoid of color and light. I saw a wolf circling in the darkness and felt its paws heavy on my chest, its breath hot on my face. I awoke (...). Then, for several minutes, I stared into the mirror trying to recognize myself."

What makes this text so strong is that Cantú manages to give a nuanced account, presenting the factual and the emotional without getting carried away on neither side. He puts all of his knowledge to work in order to make sense of the border as a concept and as an actual phenomenon: His family background, the historical, sociological and psychological research on the impact of the border and the violence that occurs there, as well as his experiences as a border patrol agent and as a friend of a deported Mexican. On the level of language, factual accounts, stories, studies, and highly poetic bits are intertwined, and the change of style and tone add to the depiction of the border as a contradictory and multi-layered reality that can be encircled, but never fully grasped (Cantú left the Border Patrol and got an MFA in Creative Writing).

The title "The Line Becomes River" hints at the fact that the Rio Grande forms part of the Mexico-United States border, the fluidity of the water somehow mocking the character of the border as a fixed barrier: "As I swam toward a bend in the canyon, the river became increasingly shallow. In a patch of sunlight, two longnose gars, relics of the Paleozoic era, hovered in the silted water. I stood to walk along the adjacent shorelines, crossing the river time and again as each bank came to an end, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood. All around me the landscape trembled and breathed as one."

Francisco Cantú already won the 2017 Whiting Award for Nonfiction for this book, and it is pretty easy to see why: Cantú does not only discuss a very current topic and shatters disgusting racist stereotypes, he also does not fall into the trap of turning his memoir into a pamphlet against the madman in the White House (who is not mentioned with one syllable throughout the whole text). It is the factuality and nuance of the book that make this account credible and moving.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,602 reviews2,573 followers
April 19, 2018
Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona and Texas for four years. Agents tracked illegals using the same skills with which hunters stalk their prey. Once captured, the would-be immigrants were detained, processed and deported. Days in the field were full of smuggled drugs, cached belongings and corpses of those who’d tried to cross in inhospitable conditions. Even when Cantú was transferred to a desk job, he couldn’t escape news of Mexican drug cartels and ritual mutilation of traitors’ corpses. Dreams of wolves and of his teeth breaking and falling out revealed that this was a more stressful career than he ever realized. Cantú worried that he was becoming inured to the violence he encountered daily – was he using his position “as a tool for destruction or as one of safekeeping”?

Impressionistic rather than journalistic, the book is a loosely thematic scrapbook that uses no speech marks, so macho banter with colleagues blends into introspection, memories and stories. Cantú inserts snippets of U.S.–Mexico history, including the establishment of the border, and quotes from and discusses other primary and secondary texts. He also adds in fragments of his family’s history: His ancestors left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, but there’s no doubt his Latino name and features made him a friendly face for illegal immigrants. He was often called upon to translate for those in custody. I felt that even if the overall policy was problematic, it was good to have someone compassionate in his job.

The final third of the book represents a change of gears: Cantú left law enforcement to be a Fulbright scholar and then embarked on an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona. During those years of study he worked as a barista at a food court and every day he chatted and shared food with another worker, José Martínez from Oaxaca. When José went back to Mexico to visit his dying mother and settle her estate, he was refused reentry to the United States for not having the proper papers. Cantú drew on his contacts in Border Patrol to find out when José’s hearing would be, helped his wife to gather character witness letters, and took José’s sons to visit him in the detention center during his continuance and civil trial. There’s a particularly wrenching recreated monologue from José himself.

It is as if, for the first time, Cantú could see the human scale of U.S. immigration policy, what his mother, a former national park ranger, had described as “an institution with little regard for people.” No longer could he be blasé about the way things are. It was also, he recognized, an attempt to atone for the heartless deportations he had conducted as a Border agent. “All these years,” he said to his mother, “it’s like I’ve been circling beneath a giant, my gaze fixed upon its foot resting at the ground. But now, I said, it’s like I’m starting to crane my head upward, like I’m finally seeing the thing that crushes.” As he quotes from Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder, “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.” That’s just what this remarkable memoir does. In giving faces to an abstract struggle, it passionately argues that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanity.

Originally published, with images, on my blog, Bookish Beck.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,734 reviews1,469 followers
January 25, 2021
First of all, in giving the book three stars, I am stating that I like it, that I am glad to have read it. There are aspects I do not like, and thus have not given it more.

The book consists of a prologue, three parts and an epilogue. The prologue depicts an experience the author shared with his mother.

The first two parts relate Cantú's experiences employed at the United States Border Patrol, first as a field agent and then later as an intelligence officer. Cantú is a third-generation Mexican-American immigrant. In Washington D.C. he had previously studied international relations, immigration and border policies. He states as his reason for joining the agency his desire to get on the ground, to see what illegal immigrants were actually going through. These two parts are journalistic in tone, albeit at times still emotionally difficult to read. Historical background information is provided. The reality of life as a field agent is drawn not only by depicting what they saw and experienced but also how the agents spoke and related to each other.

After about four years in the Border Patrol, with his nerves frayed, Cantú decided to return to college to complete a graduate degree. At the same time, he took a side job as a coffee barista. The third part, the part I like best, focuses upon one particular immigrant, Jose. He had by chance met him at his part time job. Jose was an illegal immigrant. He had lived in the US for thirty years, was married and had three kids who were American citizens. Jose’s mother, in Mexico, was dying. He had no choice but to go home to her. On returning to the States, in trying to get back to his family, he was caught and imprisoned. He was to be deported back to Mexico. Cantú, writes of his efforts to help Jose.

Finally, in the epilogue, Cantú writes of how he and residents of the communities on both sides of the border, in unguarded areas along the Rio Grande, could pass easily and freely with not a whiff of trouble or violence. The contrast hits the reader with force.

So what in the book gave me trouble? Events are delivered as snapshots. The cut off between the different parts is abrupt. Moreover, within each part different topics are joggled. The result is a disconnected feel to the writing.

Secondly, I kept wondering who really the book was about. Is it about illegal immigrants and their plight? Or, is it in fact about the author and his misgivings on working as a border patrol agent?

This disconnect and lack of clarity about the purpose of the book is enhanced by the variety of themes thrown together. The themes range from the author’s relationship with his mother, his sense of home and nationality and ultimately his choice of career. He points out that although he had previously studied international relations, he did aspire to one day become a writer. After leaving the agency he went on to study creative writing. Other themes are bounced between--the importance of family, the significance of dreams, of identity, of consciousness and subconsciousness, of human nature in general. The writing goes in all different directions. How did Jung interpret dreams and why was the author dreaming about wolves? Dreams sidetrack into a discussion of Saint Francis of Assisi. At this point, we have left far behind what I thought was to be the central focus of the book--the plight of illegal immigrants in the US!

I’ll backtrack to the third part, which I found particularly good. Jose, poor Jose! By looking at him and his family’s situation the reader comes to understand why he has no other alternative but to try to sneak over the border, time and time and time again. Despite that he is putting his life on the line, despite that it will most probably kill him, and why he plays with the idea of working for a drug cartel!

The author reads the audiobook. It Is not hard to follow. It is helpful if you know Spanish because Spanish lines are not translated. The narration I have given three stars. It’s fine.


* The Devil's Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea 4 stars
* The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham 4 stars
*The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú 3 stars
*Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail by Rubén Martínez TBR
The last is currently only available in Spanish as an audiobook.
Profile Image for Caterina.
235 reviews89 followers
February 28, 2020
The waters of the river flowed pale and brown, liquid earth washing over me like so many human hands, like a skin unending. . . . . All around me the landscape trembled and breathed as one.

I’m in a state of wonder at the unique voice of Francisco Cantú, gentle and poetic—and I’m aching with sorrow at the stories he shares — including his own journey of moral wounding that perhaps can no more be healed than each unique and irreplaceable person— each with a name, each mother, father, son, daughter—whose life is lost or torn apart on the U.S.-Mexico Border can ever be restored. It is these, as real and individual as our own loved ones, on whose lives Cantú would like us to dwell. Both the beginning of the book and its ending (including the quotation above) express Cantú's perception of the essential unity of the land itself, the artificiality of the dividing line that is only a human construct reflecting no earthly reality.

To me, this book cast a spell like a literary novel more than a memoir, with layers of depth unfathomable. Cantú has a subtle story of his own in his encounter with this human crisis. I particularly loved the way he wove in his, and his mother’s love of the desert landscape that first inspired his mother to become a park ranger, and drew him to working outdoors, albeit in a quite different role, as a border agent. I loved the gradual unfolding of their own Mexican-immigrant family’s border story, divided and mended, and Francisco’s strong, reliant relationship with his mother who offers a voice of wisdom, whether or not he’s ready to listen.

As Francisco encounters migrants dying of thirst in the desert -- or already dead -- and comes to question his role in their deportation -- or wonders how their bodies will ever be identified and returned to their loved ones -- as he comes face to face with the violence and power of the ubiquitous drug traffickers and human smugglers of the Mexican drug cartels, as he witnesses and absorbs and becomes a part of the life and work of a border patrol agent -- he is overwhelmed by terrifying dreams, including recurring dreams of a wolf reminiscent of the rapacious creature tamed by his namesake "San Francisco de Assis" in medieval tales his mother had read to him in childhood. I loved the vulnerability of centering these dreams in his story, the openness to mystery and the refusal to pin down pat meanings. Finding his university book learning detached from the realities he knew, Cantú had come to the border expecting it to open its mysteries, supply him with answers, enable him perhaps to become a policy maker who could solve the intractable problems of the border—-yet he found only multiplying complexities, confusion with no clear solutions. And he finds the violence creeping into him in a way that terrifies him. This is not an easy book to read, with violence that extends even beyond the human to senseless destruction of plants and animals. Yet in the final, wrenching story of Francisco's friendship, after leaving the Border Patrol, with a Mexican coworker who is being separated from his wife and children, Francisco lets his friendship guide his actions—perhaps a better guide than policy.

I understand that some have criticized the privileging of Cantú’s voice, and he agrees with these criticisms —the immigrants themselves need to be privileged by publishers, to be sought out by readers, to be heard. For sure I’ll be seeking those voices out. But I hope Cantú has been and will continued also to be heard on all sides: a voice human and humane, a story told with quiet introspection and humility, and to me, something that goes beyond memoir into the realm of literature. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Wendy Trevino.
Author 6 books129 followers
February 13, 2018
This is a book for the #bluelivesmatter & #alllivesmatter crowd. I hate that crowd.

from an interview in the San Antonio Express News:

"Q. How does the image of the Border Patrol square with your experience?

[Cantu]: Agents have been represented as callous, and they have come to expect that. But some of the people I worked with were some of the most intelligent, humane people I’ve ever met. It’s the largest law-enforcement force in the country, 18,000 agents. It’s bigger than the FBI and the DEA. I hope readers see the difficulty of their jobs depicted in the book."
Profile Image for Jessaka.
888 reviews122 followers
May 12, 2022
“Love Thy Neigh or as Thyself.” ~Jesus

I stood on the bridge that crossed from Laredo to Nuevo, Mexico while watching a teenage boy crawl through a broken chain link fence. He walk to the river’s edge and took off most of his clothing. Then he held his clothes over his head and waded through the shallow waters of the river. Once across, he disappeared into the bushes to get dressed, and then he moved on. It looked so easy. I knew he was just going to Laredo, because he had no backpack, nothing that spoke to me of a long trek ahead of him. Perhaps he was going to work or just to shop or visit friends.

Years later I was to learn how dangerous it was to cross the border for I had read “The Devil’s Highway.” Coyotes, the guides who helped the Mexicans cross the border would not tell those crossing illegally that it wasn’t just a day’s walk, but many days were involved. And they only had a small bottle of water to carry them through the long hot days ahead. Being left on their own the water ran out. Often they died in the desert. The few fortunate ones made it across.

I still have images of a pregnant woman, her body lying dead in the desert, almost mummified, and her stomach, once large, lay flat against her body, like the woman I saw in Guanajuato, Mexico in their mummy museum. Some things just never leave a person’s mind.

This was true for this author as well, only he was there. He was a young man, graduated from college with a degree in International Relations and wanted first-hand experience, so he joined the Border Patrol. The things he saw in the desert gave him nightmares. For one thing, he often dreamed that he was spitting his teeth out of his mouth. When he finally went to the dentist, he was told that he was grinding his teeth down.

He was one of the kind-hearted patrol men. He felt for the people crossing, and when he found them, he doctored their injuries, fed them, and gave them advice about crossing the border, such as “do not cross in the summer.” It wasn’t information to help them cross; it was information to keep them from dying.

Most crossing the border were not carrying drugs, they just wanted a better life, often a safe life. Few made it. If they didn’t die in the desert, they were caught and sent back by the Boarder Patrol. With all the surveillance, I wondered how anyone made it, even without it.

Besides feeling bad for the Hispanics who are crossing the border, I felt a lot of things, such as how to solve the border crisis, and how to solve the drug problems in the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America. I have no answers, and I doubt if anyone else does. Right now, the only answer I see is to give amnesty when needed and cause no more harm to these fine people who have endured so much just to escape from getting killed in their own homelands.
Profile Image for Taryn.
1,206 reviews187 followers
February 5, 2020
I was not aware of the controversy surrounding this book and its author when I chose to read it. Had I known how hurtful some would find this book, I wouldn't have read it. I take the protesters' point that people who are concerned about the state of the U.S./Mexico border should seek out the voices of immigrants who have experienced it firsthand very much to heart, and such a book is next up on my reading list (The Distance Between Us).
Profile Image for Mikey B..
983 reviews363 followers
January 29, 2020
A very eloquently and moving book of a man who initially worked for the U.S. Border Patrol in New Mexico and then Texas.

He has studied law and international relations and wanted to participate in the practical applications of what he had studied. His mother warned him, prior to joining, that any institution (like the U.S. Border Patrol) would come to contaminate his life – to slowly take over. It is a rare thing indeed to change an institution from within. He begins to realize this as the job makes him come to accept as “normal” behavior that he would not otherwise condone – some of this bad behavior is from his colleagues and some from himself. He is starting to step over a precipice – and fortunately is becoming more and more aware of it.

He leaves the U.S. Border Patrol in order to save himself and to live with himself.

The last part of the book, when he becomes friends with a migrant worker, is most touching. The author comes to experience through this friend and his family the consequences of what he was doing with the U.S. Border Patrol.

This book is a very personal and emotional description of the migrant experience at the Mexico – U.S. border. In an era when the media tends to de-personalize the migrant experience through euphemisms this story does the opposite. And it uniquely looks at it from someone who participated in the enforcement process.
Profile Image for Paltia.
633 reviews86 followers
October 12, 2019
A young man arrives at a crossroads. It is a time of questioning. Where to turn which way to go to find the crucial missing pieces of knowledge? He wants to understand the border. Against the advice of his mother he joins the border patrol. She worries what this will do to him and what he might become. He protests, seeing himself as a person who speaks Spanish and can possibly offer help. He needs to know. With that, this naturally inspired man journeys on in his new career. Troubled by nightmares, where his internal conflicts are revealed, he continues to search for answers. As time passes he finds himself growing apprehensive of the Mexican side of the border. When people ask him questions about his experiences he finds himself holding back and instead sharing platitudes. His thoughts remain locked inside. Are his mother’s warnings coming true? The wolves outside are howling and the ghosts are calling his name. As I read this I wanted this man to find the peace of mind he so richly deserves. I hoped that he would always find that person, to remind him of the humanity in all of us, that would break bread with him, on either side of the border. This is an immensely humane work that settled in my heart and will remain there. I wish for Francisco Cantu, as antiquated as I may sound, a world without divisions where we can breathe as one, mi hermano.
Profile Image for Claire Reads Books.
137 reviews1,385 followers
July 20, 2018
3.5 ⭐️ There’s a lot to admire here in the way Francisco Cantú writes about the US/Mexico border, but his own place within the story (his Mexican heritage, his motivations for joining the Border Patrol, and his regrets about implicating himself in a deeply flawed system) remained hazy for me. This is a book of loosely-structured vignettes, but I wish it had had a clearer framework—it reads like a promising first work that could be fleshed out into a more substantial, probing book.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,049 followers
September 28, 2019
I read this for a book club meeting that I had to miss because of a cold, and I'm sorry I missed what should have been an interesting discussion. The Line Becomes a River portrays the realities of the border, and the trouble of separating the border patrol from the end results. The dehumanization of migrants and refugees is real, and I appreciate the inside look from multiple perspectives that Cantu is able to find.
Profile Image for Oki.
Author 8 books51 followers
January 14, 2018
I don't find the ethics of this book interesting, nuanced, complex, or human. What's being posed here, is the worst that literature has to offer, and is a variation of a genre already used by the cultural propagandists of the so-called "free world." It's a cop-loving dead end of a universe, made by collaborating with the forces of death that this book pretends to mourn, it is selfish and degrading. This book tries to humanize hunting down other people.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,067 reviews1,085 followers
August 14, 2020
"I’ll keep on trying to cross"
This certainly not is a book that gives you happy feelings. I mistakenly thought it was a novel, but this is docu-fiction, apparently based on the author's own experiences. Francisco Cantu focuses on the border between the United States and Mexico, and how little people are grounded by it, both the Mexicans desperately trying to enter the US and the border guards who are "in the system". Cantu himself is of Mexican descent, and is mesmerized by that border, to the extent that, even with a university degree, he’s going to work for the Border Patrol, the American border police, for 4 years.

This produces harrowing scenes of ragged refugees in the desert, abused by the drug criminals and often harshly dealt with by the border guards, although they also appear to have their human side.
Cantu not only brings the small and big stories of misery, but also introduces brief arguments about the history of the border, about the terror of the narco-mafia in Mexico, and about the inexorable logic of the American migration laws. All very shocking.

Personally, I had an issue with Cantu's own story, his obsession with that border, which often also manifests itself in very intense dreams, and where he brings in Jung, among others, to analyze them. That personal focus didn't quite convince me, it seemed a bit forced.

He concludes with the touching and poignant story of his Mexican friend José, who has lived illegally in the US for 30 years and started a family there, but ends up in a great deal of misery when he returns to Mexico to stand by his dying mother. Cantu registers it all with growing bewilderment and a an inner conflict that tears his soul apart.
(rating 2.5 stars)
Profile Image for Kelly.
Author 7 books1,211 followers
June 5, 2018
An extremely frustrating read about Cantu's time as a border patrol agent and then his desperate desire to be redeemed because he deigns to accept Mexicans attempting to cross the border as human when he makes a friend of one after he leaves his job. Cantu is Mexican-American, so the reviews suggesting it's a white guy's story are incorrect -- the Mexican-American aspect is precisely why I picked this up, and it's precisely why I'm so irritated that there's literally no explanation for why Cantu chose this career. He "studied life on the border" and "grew up nearby" but neither of those were compelling reason behind his choice to take on a career as an agent. He never explains, but he is desperate to be seen as a "good person" in the end, when it comes to trying to help a family who is dealing with deportation of a father.

The audiobook is underwhelming, too. Cantu's reading voice is jagged and unconvincing, almost as if he himself sees the holes and weaknesses in his work along the way. In many respects, this book's weaknesses mirror those of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis: it tries to be a memoir and a book of exploration with research but manages to be weak in the first and extremely underdeveloped in the second.

I was hoping to know more of Cantu's why here. But I came away finding myself feeling my time wasn't worth his half-explored, thinly-veiled need for a redemption arc. I'm not giving it. There are far better, more heartfelt, more raw and real, stories about border crossing from the actual humans living with making such a harrowing choice.
Profile Image for Sofia.
1,144 reviews194 followers
August 4, 2022

What Baldwin says about writing here, I feel about reading. Sometimes my reading takes me to places I do not want to go to but at the same time I have to.

Borders are usually where things come to a head be it on the Mexican American border or the Mediterranean, my playground, the results are still the same, people hoping for better, national clashes of will, and migrant deaths.

Like Cantu I entered this book with questions and like him I came out with more questions. We, humans, have always moved from one place to another following the ebbs and flows of life. We always sought to overcome any physical borders, we climbed mountains, crossed oceans, but then we created artificial borders to contain the us and keep out the them. Laying claim, partitioning of the world as if it is ours, as if we have a right to lord it above everything else.

I think it past time that we start thinking more about what these borders mean, if we should do without them, if it is possible to do without them, and how to deal with such a new border-less world if that happens. Because being unprepared in such a case would mean that the big ones would totally gobble up the little ones. Otherwise we can of course continue to turn our heads, our hearts and close our eyes. But this will not mean that abuse and death are not happening, just that we are not seeing it. Cantu here shows how the imposition of harder border controls has not got rid of illegal crossings rather just pushed them further away to remoter places and also into the hands of criminal groups.

Seen or unseen the effect of all this will still come to our doors in one way or another.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,891 reviews218 followers
October 8, 2020
“One of my principal goals in The Line Becomes a River was to create space for readers to inhabit an emergent sense of horror at the suffering that takes place every day at the border. In narrating my own gradual participation in the various degrees of violence inflicted in the fulfillment of our nation’s immigration policies and enforcement practices, I sought to leave room for readers to construct their own moral interpretation of the events described.” – Francisco Cantú, The Line Becomes a River

Francisco Cantú is of Mexican American descent and has lived and worked for many years along the US-Mexico border. In this memoir, he recounts his experiences as a former border patrol officer, an intelligence agent, and friend of an illegal migrant trying to return to his family in the US. This book provides a description of the issues related to the border from different perspectives. Along the way, the author provides historical context, humanizes the people involved, and brings it to a personal level by examining the dynamics within his own family.

He explores the actions of border agents, cartels, coyotes (guides), smugglers, and regular people looking for a better life. There are no easy answers to the border problems, and this book does not try to solve them. Rather, it offers insights to assist in understanding them. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Joanne.
1,093 reviews22 followers
April 8, 2019
From up here in Canada, so far away from the southern border of the USA, it is really hard to understand the visceral reaction this book has engendered. It is quite a feat for a book to be hated on all sides of an argument; most of the hatred I've read about seems to stem from the viewpoints of the haters more than any objection to the book itself. I felt that Cantu was balanced in his approach to the story. The writing was beautiful and the characters were real and meaningful. Of course there are sociopaths among both the migrants and the ranks of the border patrol, but Cantu found the humanity and basic decency in both groups and made me care about them. His final section, about his friend Jose's deportation, was a total indictment of the system, but under the current laws and political climate, what is there to do?
This is a heartbreaking book, but it is important to read about these issues with an open mind. The problem won't be going away anytime in the foreseeable future.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews637 followers
January 20, 2018
"Some politicians in the United States think that if a mother or father is deported, this will cause the entire family to move back to Mexico. But in fact, the mothers and fathers with the best family values will want their family to stay in the U.S., they will cross the border again and again to be with them. So you see, these same people, the ones with the most dedication to their family, they begin to build up a record of deportation, they have more and more problems with the government, and it becomes harder and harder for them to ever become legal. In this way, the U.S. is making criminals out of those who could become its very best citizens."

This is a book of gradually narrowing focus. In the early parts, we read quite a bit about the history of the border between the USA and Mexico. As I read it, I thought about how the border gradually became something more and more impenetrable. From being an agreement, it became a marked line:

"In keeping with the trend toward consolidating a well‑demarcated and enforceable line, the convention agreements stipulated “that the distance between two consecutive monuments shall never exceed 8,000 meters, and that this limit may be reduced on those parts of the line which are inhabited or capable of habitation."

And now someone (this is not discussed or even mentioned in the book) wants to go all the way and make it into a wall.

The author is a man who who worked for several years in the Border Guard and we read of his experiences enforcing the border, stopping people crossing when they should not be, sending them back.

Finally, as the focus narrows even further, we read a detailed account of one man’s experience of the border.

This is a clever book. It is non-fiction and based on real experience. But it is structured in a way that pulls you in and reminds you that, however much there may be politics involved in borders and immigration, there are also real people living ordinary lives.

For most people reading this book, the USA-Mexico border will not be part of their everyday experience. There will, however, be areas of their lives where there is division. And this book makes you think about those areas. For this reason, it is a book that is well worth reading.

I would like to suggest two works of fiction as companion reads to this. Firstly, Signs Preceding the End of the World is a book based on a crossing of the border from Mexico to USA and which "explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back.". Secondly, Frankenstein in Baghdad explores some similar ideas about people and bodies and names. It is a very different book but I read it not long before reading this and was drawn back to it many times as I read this.

My thanks to Vintage Publishing for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Dean.
407 reviews116 followers
October 27, 2019
Francisco Cantu´ descending from Mexican immigrants and having worked for long years as a border patrol officer has written a mesmerizing and very emotional account of his confrontation/trauma of what it means to live the reality of the Mexican/American frontiers!!

I appreciated and valued it so much to hear the voice of an insider..
Because you know what, politicians they like to talk and talk of things without having seeing and lived the truth of the real situation at all!!

And I was so motivated to read it, because president Trump wants to strengthens and secure the border to Mexico..
So I wanted and needed to read this book!!!

Well, after having read this..I still can comprehend to some extend president Trump!!

But I have also discovered my heart for the sufferings of innocent people trapped by a system which has degenerated/mutated into a dark and inhuman instrument of cruelty and humiliation devastating whole families..

Yes, I think that Cantu´s book is more than a desperate cry giving a powerful voice to the uncounted victims..
Children, women and so many others which stamina didn't allow them to go farther..
Without names/without faces..
Their dry bones lay forlorn and scattered under the brooding scorching sun of the desert!!!

"The Line Becomes A River" leaves a deep mark, and his topicality and relevance to the present should be of paramount importance in reading such a book NOW!!!

Happy readings


Profile Image for Jaclyn.
Author 57 books563 followers
February 11, 2018
This book is so good! Cantú was a US border control agent for four years and ‘The Line Becomes a River’ is a true reckoning of what he witnessed, did and was implicit in. It’s heartbreaking and so well written!
‘I don’t know if the border is a place for me to understand myself, but I know there’s something here I can’t look away from. Maybe it’s the desert, maybe it’s the closeness of life and death, maybe it’s the tension between the two cultures we carry inside us.’
‘The part of you that is capable of violence, maybe you wish to be rid if it, to wash yourself of it, but it’s not that easy. You spent nearly four years working on the border. You weren’t just observing a reality, you were participating in it. You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, without absorbing its poison.’
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